Monty Williams hasn’t talked to Jaden Ivey about coming off the bench yet for the logical reason that he hasn’t decided if that’s what he intends. But he’s pretty sure whatever starting lineup and complementary bench unit he devises will have a sound mix of veterans and young players.
“Putting too many young guys on the floor,” Williams said following Tuesday’s practice, “I think is a disservice to them.”
The starting lineup for Sunday’s preseason opener consisted of Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart, Jalen Duren and Ausar Thompson – ages 22, 22, 19 and 20 – and Alec Burks, whose 12 years of NBA experience is twice as many as the first four players have combined. Williams admitted that if Bojan Bogdanovic had been available – he sat as a precaution with a mild strained calf, an injury that’s cropped up each of the past two seasons – he would have started instead of Burks.
“You have some really good vets that know how to play and I think they settle us down a little bit,” Williams said. “Their voices get on the floor, they know how to space, they know how to make the right plays.”
No matter what your definition of “veteran” is, the Pistons are a young team. Of the 14 players on standard contracts, only four – Burks (32), Bogdanovic (34), Joe Harris (32) and Monte Morris (28) – are older than 25. Eight are 23 or younger.
Morris, like Bogdanovic, missed Sunday’s preseason opener with a lower-back issue and neither player practiced Tuesday, so there might not be much more in the way of clues as to how Williams’ rotation will look when everyone’s healthy even after Thursday’s second preseason game, a meeting with Oklahoma City in Montreal, part of the NBA Canada series.
But given Williams’ stated intention of mixing some veterans in with each playing group, then the possibility of Ivey coming off the bench appears on the table. It can be an uneasy adjustment for some young players of Ivey’s pedigree – college All-American, high lottery pick, strong rookie year marked by an ascendant finish – to adjust to a role as unfamiliar as taking a seat for a game’s opening tip. But based on the scant evidence of one preseason game, Ivey took to it seamlessly, putting up 15 points, four rebounds and four assists on 5 of 8 shooting in 23 minutes.
Coming off the bench wouldn’t necessarily mean Ivey would log significantly fewer than the 31 minutes a game he averaged as a rookie and it could allow the best mix of playing on or off the ball. Most minutes Ivey spends at Cunningham’s side would probably mean fewer possessions with Ivey as the lead guard, a role he assumed with Cunningham’s absence last season when Ivey improved month over month.
There would still be plenty of opportunities for overlap, including late-game situations. Williams used three-guard lineups liberally in Sunday’s opener, though he cautioned that it was driven as much by a desire to allocate minutes to available players than anything else. But Williams did say it was realistic to “see Cade and Killian (Hayes) on the floor, we may see Cade, Killian and J.I. on the floor.”
In any case, the notion that bringing Ivey or any young player off the bench would deter his development lacks any credible underpinnings. The countering argument that a young player’s development is best served by surrounding him with functional playing groups carries more weight for the Pistons’ current situation given everything general manager Troy Weaver and Williams have expressed since media day last week.
Bogdanovic in the starting lineup would give the Pistons a proven, high-volume 3-point shooter. The second unit can fold in Burks plus Monte Morris and, when he returns from an ankle injury expected to keep him out at least through October, Isaiah Livers as proven 3-point threats.
If in two weeks, when it’s time to solidify an opening-night lineup, Williams decides the interests of the whole are best served by Ivey coming off bench, he’ll have an honest discussion with the second-year guard.
“I don’t think it’s a conversation just yet, but if it does come to that, I’ve always been pretty straight with players,” Williams said. “I think guys just want to know where they stand and when it comes down to it, I’ll talk to the guys that are in the rotation and guys that aren’t. That’s just the way we operate.”